A state Court of Appeals ruling on homeschooling may have a dampening effect on virtual schools as well.
The recent ruling by a California court that parents without teaching credentials cannot homeschool their children may have some effect in the world of online learning, with potential fallout for distance learning and virtual learning as well.
"The potential for this case is pretty significant," said Michael Donnelly, staff attorney for the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA). "When you look at what the ruling says, kids have to go to a full day of school or be instructed by certified teachers. That's not what happens at virtual schools. You could make the argument that this would not allow virtual schools."
Homeschooling has never been stringently regulated in California. As it stands now, parents can homeschool their children by filing paperwork with the state that establishes their households as small private schools. They have the option to either hire credentialed tutors or enroll their children in independent-study programs run by private schools, charter schools, or school districts.
Many of these programs are operated online, and parents who homeschool use an array of online resources, including whole curriculum plans offered by companies that support their programs with tutors and teachers. As of January 2007, 173 virtual charter schools in eighteen states served 92,235 students.
But that may soon not be enough for California, where on February 28, the state's Second District Court of Appeal ruled that children must enroll in and attend public or private full-time day school unless the child is tutored "by a person holding a valid state teaching credential for the grade being taught."
The loophole here is that different virtual-learning and distance-learning programs have different standards. Although some employ only teachers with California credentials, others utilize teachers credentialed in different states. In addition, some online programs have the parent act as the primary or secondary educator. The ruling does not address these differences, and therefore, it is unclear whether the state would allow reciprocity for teachers credentialed in other states and whether homeschooling parents would also need to be credentialed.
No Constitutional Protection
"Parents do not have a constitutional right to homeschool their children," Justice H. Walter Croskey wrote in an opinion. "Parents who fail to [comply] may be subject to a criminal complaint against them, found guilty of an infraction, and subject to imposition of fines or an order to complete parent-education and counseling programs."
If imposed, the court ruling would challenge the homeschooling tradition thousands of families value across the state. Some critics have attacked the ruling as the most regressive form of education policy in the country.
"There aren't enough prisons to put us all in jail," said Steve Ramsey, who homeschools his son Wyatt through a charter school called Pathways. "Everyone knows someone who is homeschooled, but no one really knows how big a community it is. It's huge."
The HSLDA estimates that more than 2 million children are homeschooled throughout the nation. The court's decision sparked so much controversy that as of March 10, the organization's online petition had more than 168,000 signatures and was growing at a rate of one signature per second.
The controversial ruling was the result of a specific child-welfare and abuse allegation case involving a Lynwood, California, family that was repeatedly referred to the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services. Though the parents enrolled their eight children in a private Christian academy, the mother, who is not a credentialed teacher, was their primary educator at home. Aside from the children taking occasional tests at the school and school officials infrequently visiting the family's residence, the family had no interaction with the school.
A trial court disagreed with a lawyer appointed to represent two of the children, who argued that the court should require the children to physically attend public or private school. But on appeal, the appellate court ruled that the family is violating state law and that their irregular contact with the academy did not qualify the children as being enrolled in a private school.
Uncertain Effect on Online Learning
It is not certain how this ruling will affect virtual-learning communities, but one thing is for sure: Online learning is growing dramatically; according to North American Council for Online Learning (NACOL), the number of students in grades K-12 who take courses online is growing 30 percent annually.
Jeff Kwitowski, vice president of public relations for the California Virtual Academies, the largest online public charter school in the state, says the ruling will not affect his institution, because its teachers are all credentialed and it is publicly funded by California. But the HSLDA's Michael Donnelly says that the far-reaching ruling does have the potential to interfere with public online charter schools.
"At an online school, who's actually doing the teaching?" Donnelly asks. "Is it a teacher who's credentialed in Nebraska but teaching children in California? Often, it's not clear. In some of the virtual public schools, the parents are the instructor; in some schools, they're the assistant instructor. It's unclear how virtual schools would be dealt with."
The lasting effects will not be certain until the case has made its way through the higher courts.
Spector, Middleton, Young & Minney, a legal office based in Sacramento, takes the position that this case does not address or affect the legality of non-classroom-based education in public schools, both charter and otherwise.
Even California's governor has publicly decried the court's decision. "Every California child deserves a quality education, and parents should have the right to decide what's best for their children," Arnold Schwarzenegger said in a statement. "Parents should not be penalized for acting in the best interests of their children's education. This outrageous ruling must be overturned by the courts, and if the courts don't protect parents' rights, then, as elected officials, we will."
At the least, the ruling is unlikely to be effective immediately, as the family is appealing the decision to the California Supreme Court.
The HSLDA plans to file an amicus brief on behalf of its 13,500 member families in California. "We will argue that a proper interpretation of California statutes makes it clear that parents may legally teach their own children under the private-school exemption," the association's briefing on the court ruling says. "However, if the court disagrees with our statutory argument, we will argue that the California statutes as interpreted by the Court of Appeal violate the constitutional rights of parents to direct the education and upbringing of their children."
Research shows that students in online learning perform as well as or better than their peers. The American Digital Schools 2006 Survey reports that 4 percent of K-12 students engage in online learning and that this number is expected to grow to 15 percent by 2011.
Lauren Smith, a freelance writer for education-focused publications, has reported for the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Bangor Daily News, and the Scripps Howard News Service.